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April 20, 2003

Ladd Gardner Interview
by: Wayne Sagar
Images used in the presentation of this interview are the property of the photographers noted on image, and or, "the Lefty Gardner collection" and are used with the permission of either the photographer, or the Gardner collection or both.

An interview with Ladd Gardner - Part VII

Ladd: "Yea, I think so, I don’t know if they could see me or not.. by the time it was all said and done, where the airplane sat was about three miles from the airport.

I’ve gone back and flown over that very spot, I’ve gone back over that spot in the 310 a couple times since the accident. One time, I even buzzed the field to see if I could see the airport and I could see the airport this time, I couldn’t see it clearly, but I could see it. They always say, when you’re in an extremely stressful situation you have tunnel vision. Your vision is skewed. Sitting back looking at it, I think that’s very true. I had a severe case of tunnel vision."

AAFO: Ladd, you’ve talked about talking to God in your situation as it was unfolding. I don’t know how religious anyone reading this might be, but after hearing all of the details of this accident, had you seen the field and made a play for it, things might not have turned out as well for you and the airplane as they did. In addition to all the experience that you had in the airplane with your dad all those years, it sounds like you might have had a really powerful Co-Pilot up there with you that day.

Ladd: "Yea. My dad is a very religious guy, more so over the last several years, as his life has settled down. He used to have a more aggressive lifestyle, the airshows and the spraying. He’s had more time to sort of think about that type of thing. We’re so close, my dad and I, and this goes back to when I was a kid. I went to private school and went to church on Wednesday, I rang the church bell and all of that. I went to a different church on Sunday’s with the family, so I was always around God as much as my parents could get me. I wasn’t a religious fanatic by any means but I had a Christian faith based upbringing and that’s the way it’s always been. I don’t think I have near the strength and solidarity that my dad does, by any means, but there’s enough there that I definitely call on God in times of need and I try to thank him as much as I can. I think I was thanking him right up to the point that the accident began and I called on him when the accident happened. I said ‘please God, see me through this, don’t let this get me’ or something like that, I said that over and over and over. And when it was all over, I was thanking him for seeing me through it.

Different people think about God in different ways but there’s so many things. When you look at the experiences you’ve been through in life, especially flying airplanes and emergencies. My dad’s got some unbelievable stories that he swears that there’s no way that he would have survived, especially during the war, and some after the war, that he swears that there’s no way he would have survived those deals if it hadn’t been for a higher power.

When I look at that accident, I feel that I had a lot of good training in that airplane but a lot of times, I don’t know if I had the training that I needed, in every sense of the word, to survive and get out of that as well as I did. A lot of people have said ‘you were faced with a pretty severe situation and you came out of it in a pretty good way.’ I mean, I had ten hours in the airplane [as pilot] when this all happened and I was just beginning to feel comfortable in it, so I feel like I fared pretty well with my limited amount of experience. To get away with it as good as I did, with all that in consideration, somebody else had to be involved and I was the only one in the airplane."

AAFO: Just looking back through what you’ve just described, step one, step two step three.. all of it, you did everything exactly right. From when you could not see, not getting inverted, to sticking the nose down so you didn’t float across the field.. all of it.. perfect Ladd.. at any one of those decision steps, you could have made a bad one and the result could have been much, much worse!

Ladd: "Exactly, there’s so many ways I could have tripped up, that airplane can trip you up on a good day! The fuel situation is a big deal. There’s been a lot of guys hurt and killed in that airplane [the P-38] during the war and afterwards, because they got tripped up on the fuel system. The way the fuel selector valves are set up, with multiple positions for each valve, odd feeling detents, which is what every pilot is trained to feel in the airplanes, to feel the detent, that’s where you get the valves set just right.

Believe it or not, there have been cases where guys have reached down there with a fuel situation problem, when an engine is running rough or trying to quit on you or whatever, one of the first things you do is reach down and check your fuel selector valves. There have been cases where guys have reached down there and turned the wrong fuel selector valve.

In that airplane, as soon as you get it out of the detent, that engine is quitting. It will starve itself, that gas, between the valve itself and the engine, in just a split second, it will burn it up that quick. You don’t have any time [to make mistakes].

On one hand, I think I was lucky, on the other hand, I think I did the right things. There’s a lot of really good guys up there who didn’t make the right decision.

On the other hand, I’ve been beating it into my head for so many years about how complicated that fuel system is. I didn’t just stumble into the airplane the year before, I’ve been around it my whole life.

It depends on how you look at it but it could have tripped me up and things could have turned pretty wrong in short order."

AAFO: The final outcome of this has you walking away from the landing and the airplane damaged but repairable. What does the future hold for Lefty Gardner’s "White Lightnin’?"

Ladd: "I’d like to share something with people that is leading up to the answer to that question. It’s funny, my mom, I love her to death, she’s my mom! She worries about us, [flying the airplane] especially when she knows this type of thing can be very real. Being married to my dad, she knew about all the dangers involved with spraying, all the crashes he had with spraying and being around the warbirds. All of this taken into consideration, she wanted us to sell the airplane, that would be a weight off her shoulders and off of the shoulders of the rest of the family. She also wanted us to sell it so they [my dad and her] could retire and relax financially. They’ve got a lot of money tied up in that airplane and it’s a financial drain like no other. Guys that have hobbies with boats or cars, it’s a money pit and same thing with this one hundred fold. And the risk goes up quite a bit, no insurance combined with all that stuff. There were a lot of good reasons for her to want to get rid of that airplane; a lot of other people in the family had similar feelings.

Within an hour of this happening, I was calling every member of the family, letting them know what had happened. I can’t remember which family member it was, either my mom or my brother said, ‘well, are you ready to sell the airplane now?’

Most people would say ‘hell yea, the airplane just scared the hell out of me, I’m getting ready to get rid of this thing’. Without any hesitation, before I could even think, it just popped out.

Nope, we’re not going to sell this thing! Especially not now, we’ve got to rebuild it!

I say that because it’s almost like there is something underlying pushing me to get this put back together, back to flying. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been in love with this type of aviation since I was a kid or what, but I knew from that minute, that we were going to put it back together.

Within an hour or so later, my dad showed up [at the accident site]. Of course, he was not in tears, but you could tell he was not far off, it was a very emotional situation for him. He’d heard in the airplane [the 310] that I’d gone down, a buddy of mine was flying the 310 and my dad was in the back seat, he [my friend] said. ‘he [Lefty] didn’t say a word.’ My friend said ‘Lefty, he’s OK, he’s fine, he’s walking around.’ He told him that two or three times but they had a 30 minute trip back here to land. He didn’t say a word.

One can only imagine what type of emotions were running through his mind, everything was going through his mind!

So my dad showed up at the airport and I’m worried about what he’s going to say but knowing the type of man that he is, I definitely felt at ease. He got out of the truck and walked up, almost with a tear in his eye, and a slight grin on his face. He was so happy to see me walking around. He came up and gave me a big hug and said ‘don’t worry about a thing, it’s just an airplane and we’ll put it back together. This is not a new thing to me, I’ve had similar occurrences but I’ve survived and we always put it back together. You’re OK, that’s all that matters, it’s just an airplane, we’ll put it back together. We’ll get her going again.’

My attitude towards selling it, with him coming in there and saying that, from that point forward, there was never any doubt in my mind, we’re going to put this thing back together come hell or high water! If it takes five years, fine, if it takes ten, fine, if it takes twenty fine. It doesn’t matter to me, if it’s doable, we’re going to do it. continue>>

part-I | part-II | part-III | part-IV | part-V | part VI | part-VII | part-VIII

You can help return one of America's great aviation treasures to flight status. Log into http://p38whitelightnin.com/ your tax-deductible contribution will be entered into the "Lefty Gardner White Lightnin' Aviation Museum" fund to restore "White Lightnin'" to flying condition. With the help of the fans of this airplane, the Gardner family will, once again, be seen flying this great airplane!

 

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